If we listed all Mary Ellen Mark’s awards and exhibits, this blog post would run miles long. Trust us – she’s a legend known for portraiture and photography that’s beautifully unsettling and rich with humanity.
Mary Ellen has been running a week-long workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico for fifteen years and this year – for the first time – she and her team made a Blurb book showcasing her students’ work.
Blurb spoke to Mary Ellen about the workshop, the book, and her advice for photographers. And while it’s not the same as getting seven days in Mexico with a legend, we thought it was pretty fantastic to have some time with her! Thanks, Mary Ellen.
Blurb: Can you talk a little bit about the value of workshops?
Mary Ellen: The purpose of attending any workshop is to get better as a photographer. The Oaxaca workshop runs seven days with critiques every day and after doing this for years, I can really say that everyone leaves a better photographer.
Blurb: What kind of person attends your workshops?
Mary Ellen: All kinds, all ages, all skill levels, from beginners to professionals.
Blurb: What’s it like for a beginner to be around people who are so much more skilled? How do you work with them?
Mary Ellen: I tell them it’s like jumping into cold water –just jump. It’s the only way to get better, is to do it, to shoot.
I also have a rule that participants don’t share work with each other during the workshop. Competition can be a negative thing and since I meet with students individually every day, everyone gets feedback. They know what they’re doing well and what they need to work on. We hold an exhibit at the end of the workshop and everyone gets to see each others’ work. It’s a great event.
Blurb: Is there a workshop that you’ve taken that sticks with you?
Mary Ellen: There weren’t really workshops when I got started but one time Bruce Davidson came to teach at the Annenberg School of Communications where I was studying for my masters. He had us pick a subject to photograph. It was December in New York and I chose street Santas.
At that time, street Santas were men who were down on their luck. They got work and a cheap hotel room to stay in for the duration of their jobs. I followed a few for a couple of days and I still have photographs that I love from that assignment.
Blurb: That intense focus on a specific group of people is a theme in your work. Is that where it began?
Mary Ellen: Maybe. It certainly taught me that if you follow people for a while, they forget you’re there and you can get access to their lives and incredible images.
Blurb: Is this something you weave into your workshops?
Mary Ellen: Yes, in the Oaxaca workshop, students focus on a theme. They’ll follow a certain family, focus on a particular street, photograph at an orphanage. One of my returning students is working on a long-term project about death in Mexico. The important thing is that they shoot everyday, process their images, and I go over their day’s work with them every night.
Blurb: What do you tell people who are nervous about photographing people?
Mary Ellen: Start easily. Take a portrait of someone you know. Then take a portrait of someone you don’t know. Do some street photography. Most people like getting their picture taken, especially in places where cameras aren’t that prevalent. Basically, it’s just fear that stops people from this kind of photography and once you get over the fear, it’s fine.
Blurb: Where did you hear about Blurb?
Mary Ellen: I learned about Blurb from my students and couldn’t get over the quality. I think every photographer or artist should make a book. A book elevates your work, it makes it professional.
Blurb: Lots of Blurbarians are making books to submit for PBN. Can you talk about your editing process when making a book?
Mary Ellen: I edit very carefully. My advice: Be a tough editor. Less is more.
Blurb: How long does it take when you’re editing a body of work for a book?
Mary Ellen: It can take months. Again, my advice is to take as long as you need to edit your work. The great thing about making your own book with Blurb is that no one can tell you what to do. So, take the time and get it right.
Blurb: After editing, what’s next?
Mary Ellen: Sequencing. Getting the pacing right. Deciding which photograph faces which and what follows. I take months editing and weeks sequencing.
Blurb: Anything else you want to share?
Mary Ellen: We’re all very lucky Blurb is here. Make a book!